WRITERS TELL ALL
Erin Kelly is One of the Biggest Names in Crime Literature, and She's Revealing a Lot of Secrets to Us
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Erin! I am so excited to finally get to interview you. I’ve been an admirer for some time, and I know it’s rare that anyone isn’t acquainted with your work by now, but I hope those reading this interview who haven’t read your many great novels will dive in head first. I can imagine life has been pretty busy lately. What is your usual schedule like? Do you have a schedule for writing, and if so are you a morning, afternoon, evening, or late night writer? Do you have a set number of pages or words a day, and what is the revision process like for you?
Erin Kelly: Thank you for having me! At the time of writing, I’m gearing up for publication of Stone Mothers so my usual routine, such as it is, is a bit disrupted, writing articles and doing interviews and finalizing the last few details of my book tour. I tend to see my day in terms of hours at the desk rather than measure the success in word count. Sometimes it takes a day of head-scratching to get the idea that moves the book forward to the next stage, which could mean lots of scribbling longhand but no words at all in the actual manuscript. Other days I can write 5,000 in a couple of hours. I delete a hell of a lot, too: understanding that a chapter I’m very fond of is the thing that’s holding me back, and consigning it to trash, might set me back a few days’ word count but will ultimately free me up. The revision process, then, is built into the first draft. (I consider everything up until the moment I have no plot holes and no research left to do the first draft.)
MT: What books do you read usually, and what books do you read while you’re writing? Do you have a book or author you turn to when you’re stuck? What were your formative years like, and what books do you feel shaped you most as a writer?
EK: I learned to read very early and can’t remember a time when books weren’t my sanctuary. I devoured the usual stuff – Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Judy Blume – and also loved Frances Hodgson Burnett and a British author called Bernard Ashley who wrote thrillers for children – really gritty, unpatronizing books about kids who found themselves tangled up in adult crimes. At about 12 I got a taste for the gothic: I loved Anne Rice, Stephen King and for a year or so I was obsessed with Virginia Andrews and read and re-read her Dollanganger saga obsessively. It is what we would now call a ‘problematic fave’ but there’s probably a hangover from those books in my own writing. I can’t resist a crumbling mansion or a dark and stormy night.
I do read when I’m writing. I know some authors don’t to crowd their heads with others’ stories during the process but I have to have a book on the go or I feel weirdly itchy and untethered. I have noticed that my reading mood changes depending on where I am in the process. When I’m still plotting I like to read thrillers, or any book with interesting mechanics. Towards the end when I’m polishing the sentences I’m more drawn to quieter, more literary fiction. Of course the ideal book is one that delivers on story and style and I don’t understand the school of thought that says you have to choose between the two. You can absolutely have your cake and eat it!
MT: You’ve written some pretty amazing novels, and they’re all very different. I really love what you do with style, narration and narrators, and all other types of ways you tell your stories. How many novels did you write before you finally published your first novel? Do you feel like your first novel felt completely you, or do you think you came more into yourself in later books? I know some authors feel it takes a while for them to feel like they’re really writing something that’s completely their own, and not something they’ve wanted to sound like another writer or genre or group or writers.
EK: The Poison Tree was my first novel, but I had been thinking seriously about it for a good five years before I finally sat down to write. I’d done a couple of evening classes and joined a writing group (which was actually more of a drinking group, and there’s nothing wrong with that). Like most debuts The Poison Tree does sometimes groan under the weight of all the books I’d loved before. In my case, these were A Fatal Inversion and The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. They share the theme of an ingenue being seduced by glamour, resulting in various degrees of fatality.
It took a few books to find my voice. The Burning Air, my third novel, was probably the first time I didn’t feel Ruth Rendell / Barbara Vine breathing down my neck although actually it was such a bastard to plot that I could have done with her help. When I wrote my fourth book, The Ties That Bind, I was reading a lot of Graham Greene and was completely obsessed with Jake Arnott’s True Crime trilogy, and those influences leaked onto the pages.
MT: I don’t really know where to begin with your novels, as far as delving into themes, ideas, stories, characters. One major issue a lot of your characters face from the beginning of your novels is trust, and really whether they can trust anyone. This comes with the crime fiction territory, of course, but I wonder—what do you think is so important about the issue of trusting people in crime fiction, more specifically the focus (I don’t know if I would say a major shift, necessarily) on family members, lovers, loved ones?
EK: Crime novels would be pretty short if everyone told the truth the whole time! I think what we’ve seen over the last five years, with the popularity of the psychological thriller as much as the police procedural is that the untrustworthy people are getting a little closer to home. It’s not the killer in the dark alley, it’s the person you’re sleeping with you really want to watch out for – which is sadly a reflection of the reality of violent crime. Most victims are known to their attackers, even if most domestic crime is more senseless and less ordered than it is in books.
MT: How much of you goes into writing your characters, good and bad? Do you ever find yourself judging your characters? Have any of your characters, or any of your books, ever feel like they have hit too close to home?
EK: Oh, I’m sure I’m all over the books, although I’ve never consciously plundered events from my own life I’ve definitely exploited my own feelings and attitudes, even my politics. Funnily enough the character I’ve felt closest to was Paul in my second novel The Sick Rose, even though we first meet him as a teenage boy. Paul was a bookish weirdo growing up in a part of Essex where there isn’t much patience for that sort of nonsense and that was my experience, too. I’ve never thought about whether I judge my characters, I suppose because I always know why they act the way they do.
MT: I really feel like I could read anything by you—a minute account of cleaning your house, a real good scrub, the floorboards, the baseboards, all the boards and then we move on to carpets. But sort-of jokes aside, do you think your ability to captivate your audience without cheap tricks lesser writers might resort to is something you’ve learned or is this a unique skill you’re born with? Your writing really feels like a middle between later Laura Lippman books and Alex Marwood’s The Darkest Secret, very much on par with some of the greatest of the greats.
EK: I treat writing as a craft and a skill – when I was writing The Poison Tree I re-read some old favourites by Nicci French and took them apart, as though I were a mechanic who wanted to find out how a car worked. That said, there is some stuff you can’t instil. My voice is what it is, I think I’ve got a good ear for dialogue and the words, at sentence level, come easily. I only wish the same could be said about the plots!
MT: Your books are in many ways very similar, but they are also drastically different from each other too, which I feel is the sign of a truly great writer. The Poison Tree regards so many secrets, and you have a really great gift at building suspense. One main theme is family—the one we have, and the one we pick. I’m interested in your opinion, but I would argue that in The Poison Tree, Karen’s relationship with Rex is doomed from the very beginning. Rex’s relationship with his sister is disturbing in many ways, and as I and so many other people have learned from various relationships, there are some relationships doomed from the start. Do you think this is true for Karen, Rex, and Rex’s sister?
EK: I get a lot of emails about Karen, Rex and Biba but I’ll tell you a secret that no one else has guessed: Biba set Karen and Rex up. Biba was sick of what she perceived as Rex smothering her, so she went fishing for a nice boring girlfriend to take up some of his attention. I don’t think it went quite to plan, though.
MT: You do a really great job in all of your novels of revealing some great surprises along the way, but then by the end of the novel it’s like a domino effect, with each domino being a surprise, and each surprise or shock being bigger than the last. Do you plot everything out before beginning a first draft, or are you the type to come up with things as you go? I know some really great authors who do both, and I am ready to take notes either way.
EK: I wish I could plot before I write. But it doesn’t work that way for me. I’ve tried to do it several times, but I get to know my characters and how they behave by putting them in detailed scenes. I have a vague idea of where I want to go, and I sometimes end up there, but the route is never like the one I had in mind (usually for the better).
MT: In He Said/She Said, you tackle the issue of rape, rape culture, “white feminism” and social justice warriors, and so many more current topics without ever being on the nose (like many authors who really try and see how many times they can fit “#metoo” and other current social justice slang in their novels). The novel is so unsettling because, speaking for myself here, I can say that I remember when I was like the protagonist, Laura, who believes she has stumbled upon a woman being raped. First off, I wanted to commend you on writing a crime novel that actually focuses on rape instead of initially murder, and making the novel just as compelling and page-turning as any of your others. There have certainly been many novels in recent years dealing with the issue of rape, but these usually automatically come coupled with a scandalizing murder. Why do you think people have a hard time talking about rape, and acknowledging it as a central crime, if not the main crime, in a novel?
EK: He Said/She Said was published around the same time as a handful of other thrillers that take sex crime as their jumping-off point: I’m thinking of An Act of Silence by Colette McBeth, Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan, Winnie M Li’s Dark Chapter, so it’s clear that we were all reacting the same way to the groundswell of female voices talking more openly about rape. All the authors I’ve just mentioned are women and I know that, like me, they’d had enough of seeing rape as a precursor to murder, and certainly a few years ago the victim was likely to be nothing more than a prop to help the cop get his guy. (Crime fiction is getting better at this: TV, on the other hand, still has some way to go). Murder is extraordinary and most of us are lucky not to be touched by it. Rape, on the other hand…if you’re on a packed train carriage, you’re probably sharing it with at least one rape survivor. I think we all wanted to write books that explore the horrific everyday reality of rape, in ways that honoured the survivors.
MT: I think the hardest part about reading He Said/She Said, which is also probably why so many people were drawn to it, is, as I said before, so many people see themselves in Laura. She wants to be the person to save another woman from a rapist. Of course, things become more complicated with the “gray matter” of rape—everything that must qualify a rape as a rape, and how ridiculous the law is when it comes to this, as a murder is mostly always a murder, and the same with many other crimes. You capture this issue so well, but the danger is something that, in many ways, Laura invites upon herself, becoming too involved with the crime and the victim, even inviting the victim into her home. I know you don’t have all the answers, and I actually prefer books that ask questions rather than telling the reader what to think, but what inspired to write this book, why did you decide to write it and Laura the way you did, and why was it so important to separate yourself from all of these other #metoo, rape culture, “social justice warrior” novels?
EK I kept seeing the same story play out again and again and again. A young man would be found guilty of rape and either the judge or a reporter would lament not the destruction of the victim’s security but the loss of the rapist’s career. Jamie, in the book, was inspired by the blue-eyed posh boys who were recast as the real victims in all this, and I was sick of it.
I didn’t think about this book in the context of other ‘social justice warrior’ or ‘me too’ novels. As per my previous answer, there weren’t that many being published when I was writing He Said/She Said, although conversations women were having with each other were clearly working their way into several books.
MT: You have a new novel coming out, which my friends have told me amazing things about and I’m so excited to get my hands on it. Do you mind telling our readers a little about it?
EK: Stone Mothers is set in an old Victorian Mental asylum and is told backwards: it begins in the present day when it’s been converted into luxury flats, moves back to the days when the building was abandoned and finally the secrets are revealed in the chapters set when it’s a working hospital. I got the idea when a friend who’s an urban explorer was in just such a place and came across a cabinet full of old medical records, with some pretty incriminating details. She’s a nurse so knew what to do with them, but I couldn’t help thinking that in the wrong hands, this information would be incredibly dangerous… and I had a story.
Here’s the publisher’s blurb:
Stone Mothers tells the story of Marianne, who was seventeen when she fled her home, her family her boyfriend Jesse and the body they buried. Now, forced to return, she can feel the past closing around her. And Jesse, who never forgave her for leaving, is finally threatening to expose the truth. Marianne will do anything to protect the life she’s built: the husband and daughter who must never know…
MT: Erin, it was so great to finally talk with you about your books and writing, and I’d love to talk to you even more but I know I’ve taken up more than my fair share of your time. I really encourage the few readers we have who haven’t already ready your books to pick up copies of all your books and read away. I really hope this interview has been as fun for you as it has for me, and I really hope it’s really informative to our readers about your books and your writing. Thank you so much for talking to us and feel free to leave us with any comments or thoughts, and it was really a pleasure.